Text by Shraddha Jahagirdar-Saxena. Photography by Ritika Shah. Styling by Shweta Navandar
“Are you kidding me – does something like that exist?!” Lakshitaa Khanna, India’s first female water sommelier (and yes, that is her actual profession), is used to encountering such incredulous responses when she explains her job. But, determinedly enthusiastic about an issue that can literally never run dry, she believes that there is much more to H20 than simply being an inorganic, transparent, tasteless and odourless thirst-quencher. As Martin Riese – considered America’s first certified water sommelier – tweeted: “[…]People who think water is boring don’t drink enough water.”
Before entering this line of work, to learn about the diversity and lesser-known features of water, Khanna had studied fashion journalism at NIFT (National Institute of Fashion Technology), Delhi and also completed a course in design from the Marangoni Fashion Institute, Milan. She briefly joined her father in his real-estate business but eventually decided to switch lanes and follow a deeper passion.
A safe water supply is a precious, even scarce, commodity for many populations, as natural resources are either drying up, becoming contaminated or are not easily accessible. So, a water sommelier definitely stands out in a country like India, where the juxtaposition of communal taps with branded bottles is starkly obvious. But Khanna believes that her efforts to instil greater understanding about conservation and informed consumption in the globalised urban consumer will eventually trickle down to have a widespread impact.
The 31-year-old Khanna honed her palate through a course at the Fine Water Academy (spearheaded by Riese and Michael Mascha) and learnt about several factors, like the TDS (total dissolved solids) levels, carbonation, GDS (groundwater development stress) and pH levels, that can effect subtle changes between the taste and texture of, say, Evian and Veen and would be unnoticeable to the average consumer.
The founder of Bodh (whose water comes from Bhutan – the only carbon-negative country in the world – thus reportedly holding superior nitrate levels) sees how her peers have increasingly begun to focus on slow living, which includes mindfulness around meals. This shift has ultimately also led to a stronger consciousness around the nutritional content, quality and sources of the water that we drink. Including a podcast series with Riese that is in the works, Khanna’s plans are focused on building awareness. “I want to reach out to all sections of society,” she explains. “I want to educate everyone and hope to do that in the future.”
Excerpts from her conversation with Verve….
I’d read about how Martin Riese, as a child, would always drink from the tap during family vacations around Europe, which is how his curiosity about water developed. Did you have a similar beginning?
Mine is not as dramatic. Honestly, I, like most children, would have preferred having a carbonated soft drink like Coke or something sweeter. But by my early teens I did realise the need to drink more water and avoid the harmful effects of sugared water.
On my first visit to the Thong Nai Pan Noi beach in Koh Phangan, Thailand – I was less than 10 then – I was amazed to see the huge expanse of water that stretched far, without a visible horizon. That sight made me recall my school geography lessons and the fact that water covers about three-fourths of the earth’s surface. I was completely fascinated by this stretch of water and spent hours imagining its mystery and the fantastic creatures that lived in it and how the same water touched thousands if not millions of different shores; its calmness and stormy ferocity continued to fill me with wonder.
However, it was on a hiking trip in Bhutan about four years ago, when I stopped to drink at a spring, that you can say is when water really spoke to me. The sweetness of that water was tempered with a taste of the earth, but it was so refreshing and uplifting. It quenched my thirst and left me feeling totally rejuvenated; I felt as if I had imbibed from the spring of life itself.
I had an insane desire to scream “Eureka!” at the top of my voice. You could call that my defining moment. I realised that I wanted to learn more about the water, bottle it and offer it to the world, and work towards ensuring that clean and potable water becomes a possibility for everyone.
This choice of profession is an unusual one. How do people initially react when you tell them that you are a water sommelier?The most common reaction I get is, “Are you kidding me, does something like that exist?!” Nonetheless, amongst frequent travellers and global citizens, awareness of the profession is growing. And the hospitality industry is not only increasing the water selection on offer but also employing sommeliers, though most work for bottlers and the mineral water industry at present. However, I see the hospitality industry embracing this speciality, just as they do wine sommeliers.
How would you describe the different tastes of water? Do you have a preference?
Fine mineral waters come in flavours that range from sweetish to strongly mineralised, which some may find slightly bitter or heavy on the palate. Waters can also be naturally or artificially carbonated, and these are the champagnes of water. Those originating from volcanic origins tend to be naturally carbonated and have a high sodium content that influences their taste. These are generally light and have effervescent bubbles. Other waters have high or neutral pH balance, which again leads to differences in taste as some may be acidic and others, alkaline.
My preference is my own Bodh Water, which has low TDS and balanced pH levels, making it light in taste and very refreshing. However, while having heavy meals, I also like S.Pellegrino, an Italian water, which is high in minerals but sweetish with added carbonisation. This makes it palate-cleansing yet refreshing, and the carbonisation gives it a zing that is tongue-popping.
How long did it take for you to tune your palate?
Learning how to do so would honestly be a life-long process but the few courses that do exist allow you to train and recognise various flavours in over a year’s time or more. This is not to say that it takes a year for one’s palate to recognise different tastes. Like everything else, one fine-tunes one’s palate through regular tasting and experimenting with different waters; as you sample more and more of the same, your repertoire of taste tends to increase, and it becomes easier to differentiate and recognise the various waters by their particularities.
You mentioned fine waters – how do they differ from purified drinking water?
Purified drinking water or pure bottled water is water that has gone through a filtration process which removes germs and bacteria from the ground. However, this process also removes most of the minerals and nutrients that are present in the water, and a sustained use of bottled water can lead to mineral deficiencies in the body.
Natural mineral waters or “fine waters” as we call them are bottled at the source and are mostly from ancient spa towns – since the past few centuries they have been known for their holistic therapeutic effects on the human body. They spring from ancient aquifers or come from sources that are untouched by human hands; they carry the goodness of the earth as they make their way through nature’s course, till they are bottled for human consumption.
How can one identify the presence of different minerals in water?
Compared to wine, differences in taste among waters are quite subtle. But they are nevertheless discernible. As water meanders through the earth – in rivers, springs, wells and more – it collects various minerals, giving source waters their unique characteristics. So, calcium would make water taste milky and smooth; magnesium gives it a bitter taste and sodium can make it salty. If a water has a highly metallic taste, it can hint at high iron levels. It also brushes by plants, collecting their taste and properties and does so throughout its journey, till it ends in one’s glass or cupped hands, carrying all the memories it has experienced.
India has several different sources of water. Tell us about some of your explorations and tastings….
The first experience that comes to mind – which I was fortunate enough to witness – was an ice stupa in Ladakh. This creates artificial glaciers which store water in winters in the form of conical shaped ice heaps. Come summer, when water is scarce, the ice stupas melt and become a water supply for agriculture. The one I saw was a wonderful piece of art and creativity by the inventor Sonam Wangchuk. The project was conducted under the aegis of Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh.
Another unforgettable source was a beautiful stream in Kashmir, which I came across during my travels. The musical sound of that stream and the taste of its water were magical. Uttarakhand is also endowed with bountiful water resources that are available in abundance.
Any tips for how to best enjoy water?
There are a few key points that one must keep in mind. Water is tastier when not chilled and is kept at room temperature. One of the most common mistakes that people make is to drink water too cold. Ice is bad for water.
And we should never throw water from different sources into the same glass as this can interfere with the taste profile. Also, lemon should never be used in water at tastings or pairings – even though you may drink lemon water every day for hydration – as it is considered by experts to be the arch-nemesis of water. This fact has been proven to be true via many trials; it interferes with the original taste. Similarly, water sommeliers across the globe emphasise using the correct glass. So, when preparing a water menu, it’s important to remember that water holds value and should be elevated at the table.
What varieties would you match with Indian cuisine?
As I mentioned, Indian cuisine, due to its use of varied spices, tends to be best paired with water. A more flavourful water can be paired to cleanse the palate or complement the food, which may be important for tourists who are not used to it. A sparkling water adds zing to the various Indian desserts and leaves one refreshed after a typically heavy meal. Indian food holds richness and is generally spicy; it should be balanced out with waters like Fiji Waters which has a sweet after-taste because of its good silica content.
When I think of dishes, the first one that comes to mind is a well-cooked rogan josh. I would pair this with a bottle of S.Pellegrino and serve butter chicken or butter paneer with a bottle of 22 Artesian water from Spain. A light dessert like rasmalai or phirni would go well with a low minerality water like Svalbardi from Norway that would not detract from its flavour.
How do you think we can change our perspective about water?
The first step is for all of us to use water conservatively ourselves and educate those who don’t do so about its judicious use. This means changing our mentality and attitude towards water in our daily living. The use of social media to highlight the importance of water is also vital, as more and more Indians are active on it, and this will change attitudes for the better.
Who is your target audience?
As a brand, Bodh is priced a bit higher and therefore has a niche market.
But I would like to say that the role of a water sommelier becomes important in a country where water is scarce. I must prove that water sommeliers exist and have the knowledge to help people and our country.
So, in the Indian context, I want to reach out to all sections of society. I want to educate everyone and hope to do that in the future. We need to conserve our water, its sources. It bothers me when I see people wasting water. We need to use it in the right ways. And it is also important for us to get the right nutrition through drinking the right kinds of waters.
How do you plan to create awareness about the different types of drinkable water in India?
Bodh Waters has started a campaign on social media through its Facebook and Instagram pages to raise awareness and show visitors the difference between the various types of waters. However, this is still in its early stages. We are also planning to start a blog and a series of podcasts in collaboration with Martin Riese and Michael Mascha in a bid to educate people on the difference between waters. More importantly, we are trying to convey the message of water conservation and implementing sustainable strategies to recycle water in our area. We hope to expand this first across Delhi, and then look beyond.